Headphones are in some ways the speaker world’s equivalent of motorcycles; smaller, cheaper, and more efficient than a motor car but not suited to all uses. And like motorcycles, there are a variety of different types of headphones. This is not a review of any particular headphone set, just a general introduction for anyone wondering which headphone is best for their needs.
There are several basic types of headphones. These differ primarily in how much isolation they provide (how much they block out external sound), their efficiency, and their size and shape.
Although they come in a huge variety of shapes, ‘open’ headphones are all fairly similar from an acoustic standpoint. They are called ‘open’ because they do not create a sealed (‘closed’) chamber around the ear and the rear of the driver (speaker) is not sealed from the outer environment. In essence, all open headphones just suspend a small speaker next to your ear. They may take different approaches to that task, and they may use speakers of differing quality, but the basic task is always the same. This make it easier for the manufacturer to achieve a detailed and airy mid-range clarity because the speaker container is not a sealed enclosure, but this will often be at the expense of deep bass response. They will make some audible noise for for the person sitting next to the wearer, something to be aware of if you intend to use them on public transport, for instance.
Open headphones can also be called ‘supra-aural’ headphones if you are feeling pretentious, because they sit on top of the user’s ear. There are several major categories of these:
Ear buds ;
Ear-clip headphones (there’s no common term for this type) which are often used with mobile phones ;
Street-style headphones with a wraparound band (these are usually wireless).
A relative rarity these days, ‘closed’ headphones create a sealed chamber around each ear, hence the term ‘circumaural’. Air cannot (easily) escape from this chamber and so vibration is transferred better from the speaker to your ear drum while external sounds are damped out. Closed headphones therefore tend to provide better isolation, higher efficiency, and significantly better bass reproduction. The headphone manufacturer is better able to tune the enclosures to achieve specifically desired results. Some headphones are renowned for their huge bass response.
Nothing in life is free, of course; closed headphones have to be larger (so they can wrap all the way around your ear, not just sit on top of it) and they tend to squeeze the wearer’s head slightly to help maintain their seal. But since they press against the head, not the ears, and are usually well-padded, this may not be such a problem. It’s also significantly harder to design them competently, which means decent ones tend to be pricey.
These days, any headphones described as ‘full-sized’ or ‘circumaural’ (in other words, ‘big’) are likely to be closed because it’s otherwise hard to justify having headphones that are so large. But neither of those terms necessarily means that the ‘phones are actually closed; larger headphones can still be open, or ‘semi-open’/’semi-closed’ (close to sealed, but not quite). Electrostatic headphones are huge but are also open backed. They are also incredibly expensive.
If you’re likely to be using headphones when out closed headphones will be almost inaudible to the person sitting next to you on the train (unless you use it at stupidly high volumes, which isn’t a good idea for a number of reasons). This works both ways, though. You will also be able to hear a lot less of what’s going on around you: ideal for the journey in a noisy carriage but less wise when you’re crossing a road and can’t hear the blast of a car horn.
If you’re comfortable with the idea of sticking a foam-padded piece of plastic into your ear canal, in-ear headphones may be for you. They are the smallest and most portable sort of headphones, and offer the highest isolation (not unlike jamming your fingers in your ears). They essentially take the basic concept of sealed heaphones even further than circumaural designs and create a tiny sealed chamber inside your ear. This leads to very high efficiency (and again, exceptionally high isolation) and makes life easier for the people designing the things. This has the happy result that good quality in-ear headphones are typically cheaper than other types of ‘phones of similar quality. There is one proviso here: Bluetooth or wireless earbuds are more expensive due to the amount of micro-circuitry that needs to be crammed into such small devices.
There are downsides to the earbud solution. Tiny transducers (‘speakers’ hardly seems appropriate for something that almost directly vibrates your skull) are not able to reproduce bass very well. Many people find these headphones uncomfortable, especially when worn for extended periods. Some manufacturers provide several different foam pads to deal with this problem, but that is still only a partial solution. And if you tend to share headphones with friends, well, something you insert into your ear may not be the most hygienic option.
These headphones are also sometimes called earphones (in particular, the manufacturer Shure uses this term), canal phones, and in-canal earphones.
Making your choice
As with so many purchases, one is these days faced with a bewildering choice. The product types (which we’ve touched on here) are sometimes used in different ways by different manufacturers while technical specifications (which I’ll look at in a later article) come in a bewildering array of figures and abbreviations.
Also as with so many purchases, quality and price do tend to bear a close relationship to each other. As I mentioned above, however, some designs are inherently more expensive and this style may not be what you’re looking for. There’s also the question of how long you’re likely to spend each day using them, how much you want to compromise between sound quality, comfort and portability and – of course – how much you’re willing to spend. Uncomfortable or poor-quality headphones can be a nightmare so the cheapest isn’t usually a good idea. However, for your particular purpose, the most expensive may not be ideal either.
If you want to have a chat about this or any other aspect of sound reproduction, on whatever scale, please get in touch.